Work-Life Balance Profile #10: Ali Miller
Ali and I struggled to find a date for our interview. Between our respective work schedules and family demands, we eventually settled on an early evening one Saturday in January, and even then our conversation was interspersed with interruptions on both our sides.
I was left scratching my head in reaching a conclusion to Ali’s story, and I wondered if it was because the distractions had disturbed my note-taking. Her story is so full of contradictions and barriers.
But then it dawned on me that throughout our discussion, Ali didn’t give herself any credit for her accomplishments – either professional or personal. So much of our conversation had centred on her dyslexia; what she has “tried” to do, and the effort she puts into the things that don’t come easy to her. She acknowledged other dyslexic role models, but didn’t seem to recognise how she could count as one herself.
Over the past weeks, as I’ve written up and given our interview more thought, I’ve been left wondering what difference it would make if Ali redirected the effort she puts into the things she “can’t do”, or feels obliged to do, into building on her strengths and the things that she really wants to do instead. And I thought how that speaks to a universal pattern of behaviour that strengths-based approaches are attempting to counter.
I think that many will identify with Ali’s self-deprecating approach and I hope they will take inspiration from reading her ‘Work-Life Balance Profile’. Not only from learning how a person can overcome substantial barriers and reconcile life’s contradictions. But also the value and importance of taking stock of one’s own successes once in a while – however much one’s culture discourages it – and raising a glass (or teacup) in a quiet moment of self- congratulation.
Work : Life Ratio
80:20 (Before having children)
20:80 (After having children)
There is no typical ‘day in the life’ of Ali Miller. A self-employed artist and designer, married with two young daughters, Ali’s schedule since the pandemic began is dictated daily by the various demands of her business and her children.
Ali works in her home studio, where she says she’ll happily disappear when she can find a quiet moment, which is rare these days. Her husband, a self-employed businessman, is the main breadwinner in their family. He works long hours and (before Coronavirus) would travel frequently. Ali is their daughters’ primary carer.
Home-schooling during lockdown has been a perennial nightmare for Ali, largely due to her dyslexia. Overwhelmed by the deluge of online home-schooling instructions and suggestions, she fails to keep up with the expected educational provision, which is exhausting and miserable.
Pre-kids and pre-Covid, Ali would enjoy partying hard with her friends and visiting art galleries in her spare time. These days, to wind down, she indulges in late night TV-watching and comfort food. She says that she has every intention of exercising but is not very motivated and, during lockdown, there is enough to keep her home. The exception is meeting up with her girlfriends for the occasional socially distant walk, which provides a comforting sense of normality and freedom, as well as exercise and a chance to connect with the people that she loves.
“Art has never felt like work”, Ali told me. “It’s a part of me, like breathing”. Given the chance, she says that she would flip her work:life ratio back to what it was before having children: “I’d love to know what I would create if I had the privilege and time to do artwork all day long. That would be a lovely thing to do”.
But duty calls.
Work vs Life: Who Wins?
I begin each “Work-Life Balance Profile” interview by asking my interviewee to put a self-perceived figure on their current work:life ratio and whether they aspire for it to be any different. Of course, quantifying something this multi-faceted isn’t a science. But it’s a good place to start for getting to the heart of their story.
Ali’s answer was like none other that I’ve encountered so far.
Given that I started my blog during the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s been common for my subjects to make a distinction between pre and post-Covid times, which Ali did too. But the greater distinction that she made was the comparison of her work:life ratio before having children to afterwards.
She didn’t say it in so many words, but to Ali, “work” is her life; her artwork is a form of expression and release. And conversely, much of what constitutes “life” feels like work; something that she is obliged to do and that she finds a hard graft.
Indeed, the domestic life that Ali has acquired since becoming a mother sounds like a job she works very hard at. So much so that when setting out her work:life ratio to me, she attributed a hefty 25% of her time to preparing things for her children while they are out of the house or asleep. That includes jobs like cooking, shopping and preparing activities, so that she is available and equipped to face the inevitable, albeit unpredictable, outbursts and chaos that she has come to expect as part and parcel of parenting.
She spoke wistfully about her home studio as a place that she loves to “disappear” to. But the obligations chaining her to the family space keep her away from that place more than she’d like.
Ali’s absolute devotion to getting motherhood “right” is palpable, which is an impressive show of commitment for someone who doesn’t seem to derive much pleasure or interest in domestic godliness. She admittedly would much prefer to immerse herself in work, but is devoted to her family and puts them first, despite her true inclinations.
Is she happy with this work:life balance ratio, I asked? What would she aspire it to be otherwise? To which she responded with a wink and hearty laugh, “send the kids back?”.
“I Can’t Do This. But I’m Trying”.
“‘A’ for effort” is a score that Ali has shouldered all her life. “I was a good girl at school”, she told me, “I tried to get on with things; I tried to please”. For Ali, aiming to please was a much easier target than aiming to achieve.
She was only about three years old when her dyslexia started presenting itself and by the time she started school, the label had stuck. She found learning difficult from the outset, which was frustrating and upsetting. For example, she remembers being taught her times tables and not understanding or retaining the information. “I just couldn’t!”, she told me, exasperated still. Unable to meet her teachers’ expectations, aiming to please them by being a “good girl” was the next best thing. And that behaviour stuck.
Don’t get me wrong. Ali is no “goody two-shoes”. In fact, she describes herself as perceptive, shrewd and nobody’s fool. But when it came to education, she said she felt like a square peg in a round hole: “The system has never worked for me”. So she’s worked her way around it using her cunning, and is not one to sit quietly in line. But, she explains, when you don’t do well academically, you have two options: either mess about, or keep your head down and try. It wasn’t her personality to stir up trouble; so she opted for the latter approach, where at least she could be awarded an “‘A’ for effort”.
In the classroom, she felt like an outsider, known straight out as the “special needs child”. A “hot red feeling” would creep over her as she was singled out in class. She was the only one allowed a computer in the classroom, for example, which felt totally embarrassing and marked her as different and in need of extra help. It’s no wonder that art felt like an escape to her, a safe space away from words and numbers, where she could express herself and find acceptance.
Ali’s father also possessed an artistic flair and had been a prolific photographer in his teens. He sadly died after suffering a short illness just before Ali got married. After his death, Ali discovered a box of his photography work and set about using this as the basis for some of her own work, a series she entitled “Brave Soldiers and Black Butterflies”.
Ali suspects that her dad also possessed a degree of dyslexia, which was never diagnosed. He did badly at school and grew up to be an astute businessman, though avoided being the one to deal with paperwork and accounts. Ali says she learned a lot from him about how to work around a system you don’t quite fit into.
Ali’s parents divorced when she was around the age of ten. Her mum, who trained as a primary school teacher, was often home, having become an occasional supply teacher after her children were born. Ali recognises the difficulties that her mum faced as a single mother of three children; she was not the archetypical “stay-at-home-mum” and domestic perfection was not something that held much value. Consequently, Ali was largely left to fend for herself when it came to home comforts, which instilled in her a conflicting sense of independence and helplessness. Something that she says she still battles with today.
Stupid is as stupid does
The most frustrating thing about being an adult with dyslexia, Ali told me, is not being able to act entirely independently. Ali relies on others to help manage both the words and the numbers that surround everyday domestic and business decisions and transactions.
She explained to me how her dyslexia slows her down at work. When I asked her to describe what she sees when she looks at a page of writing, she struggled to find the words, but settled on this description: “I see the same word twenty times, so my brain has to work twenty times harder to filter out the correct information”. It’s worse when she’s tired, she told me: the “b”s, “d”s and “p”s on a page muddle up, and sometimes spoken words will come out wrong too. “My brain and I get overwhelmed”.
She talked me through the constant hurdles of failure that have knocked her back professionally by not being able to read or write well. “I’ve had to be reliant on others”, she says, which impinges on her freedom. “My destiny is not in my own hands; nothing is done on my timetable or speed. If I can’t do something myself, I have to wait until help is available”. On the flipside, she says, she’s good at delegating.
We get onto the subject of laziness, and, as if weary of thinking about the cycle in her mind, Ali tells me how she has long tormented herself with whether she tried hard enough to overcome her dyslexia. “How much pressure should you put on a child?”, she asks. “I know I’m not stupid”, she urges, but someone who can’t read could well be thought of as stupid. “Is it that I can’t overcome my dyslexia because I’m lazy, or am I lazy because I stop trying do certain things because they are so difficult?”.
All these thoughts are unpleasant, uncomfortable and difficult. They are all fine lines, she says, and there is no satisfying answer either way. She resolves to just work hard; nothing comes easy.
Ali reflects that she might have taken a different path professionally if she’d been able to undertake an academic course – “if I could have read the books to do it, I’d have loved to study psychology or psychotherapy. I find humans fascinating”.
To add insult to injury, at the age of fifteen, while friends around her were preparing for their GCSE exams, Ali had to undergo hip and leg surgery, involving a period of hospitalised convalescence. As if it wasn’t already going to be hard enough for her to attain a set of respectable results, this set-back made it virtually impossible, shutting her out to some career options before she’d even left school. She managed to scrape through with enough GCSEs to study Art at A-Level, and from there went on to Art College.
Having children has magnified the debilitating impact of Ali’s dyslexia and has brought back some of the traumatic memories of her childhood challenges that she’d happily forgotten. “I used to skim over bedtime stories that I was reading to the kids when they were little”, Ali told me, making up sentences to save herself the effort of reading the words. “I can’t get away with that anymore”, she said, now that her girls are learning to read.
She describes a wave of failure flooding over her when she had to explain to her daughters that she was “not good at reading”. “It’s not cool or fun not to be able to do it”, she says resignedly. “But it is what it is. I can’t hide it, and they are understanding of my limitations”.
Ali has herself made peace with her limitations too. Rather than swimming against the tide of her dyslexia, she is resolute instead on being successful in spite of it. Her professional accomplishments of building a livelihood out of her artwork, and creating a brand that has attracted swathes of global customers and the occasional celebrity stage set, is no mean feat. Taking into account the barriers Ali had to overcome to achieve this is nothing short of brilliant. Not that Ali expressed any recognition of this during our discussion.
Lots of creative people, she points out, are dyslexic and there are more celebrity role models talking openly about it now too, which is a great thing. The stigmas of being singled out as “stupid” or having “special needs” are lifting, she recognises, though perhaps a little late for her benefit.
Rage Against the Machine
Ali says that her business doesn’t currently generate the income it would take to pay for more childcare, and that it would not be financially viable for her husband to be their daughters’ primary carer. So the work of motherhood piles up.
Whilst she feels privileged not to be relied on to put bread on the table, she would appreciate sharing the load more, particularly during lockdown. The more we talked about this, the more a tirade of frustration at society’s inequalities and injustices flooded out. At first, it centred on the sexist expectations of women as mothers. But soon our conversation turned to Ali’s incandescence at gender inequality more generally.
Men, she stated, have more choice to balance their careers with their parenting responsibilities; the expectations for women to carry the mental load is totally unbalanced. Her dream scenario, she said, would be “to do what realistically most men do”: go to work and come home to the family at the end of the working day.
She is sceptical about the men who bang the drum about working part-time and sharing the childcare with their working wives, like one of A Fine Balance‘s previous subjects, Sam. She argues that the women she knows who work full-time or share some childcare with their husbands are still the ones carrying more responsibility for the overall care of their families. Ultimately they end up doing more “work” all round, she argues.
Ali describes how difficult it is for working mothers to be “present” with their children: “While I am with my kids I am spinning twenty plates in my head about domestic needs and childcare and all sorts”, she explains. In contrast, she observes that when her husband comes home after a day out at work, he is totally present with the children and able to focus on them entirely as his work is done. “It winds me up beyond belief”, she tells me, “how during lockdown women are carrying the domestic load when both partners are at home – I see it all the time”.
Ali is adamant that her daughters will grow up with the independence that she herself lacks. “I don’t have a choice”, she argues, when I challenge her about why she doesn’t practice what she preaches more by way of gender equality in her home. “I don’t have the skills, freedom or knowledge to be totally independent”, she says, describing her reliance on her husband to manage their financial affairs, for example.
Ali points the finger at society for not educating girls adequately with the skills that matter, and is infuriated by the beauty industry’s role in painting a false image of what women should be. She shuns any encouragement of “girly-ness” in her daughters, and is resolute that they will grow up feeling empowered to challenge gender expectations. “The girls can’t be anything like I am financially. I can’t let that happen”.
Despite her frustrations, Ali assumes the role of her daughters’ primary carer. And not half-heartedly at that. Holding the reigns on their routine doesn’t seem to be something that Ali could relinquish with ease, even if she did have the option to.
Unlike some of the other women I’ve blogged about – such as Sarah and Marsha – who are their children’s primary carers, Ali’s approach appears to be borne more out of practicality than a maternal instinct or possessiveness over her children: “I want to have a peaceful family life”, she told me. Maintaining control and mitigating chaos seems to achieve that for her. Not only is she acutely aware that when the proverbial hits the fan, she’s the one that has to clean up the mess. But throwing her all behind the endeavour of motherhood is also consistent with the “’A’ for effort” tactic she has become accustomed to over the years.
Ali looks back nostalgically to her life before becoming a wife and mother as a time when she was free to explore her creativity and ambition unhinged. A kind of claustrophobia has descended on her during the Covid lockdowns, though the intense environment has also ignited the occasional unleashing of her creative spirit through brief escapes to her studio.
She knows that she could make more time for these creative moments, though the claustrophobia often stifles her impulses to create.
As it stands, the work-life balance that Ali has, and the one that she desires, are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Her contrary definitions of “work” and “life” will no doubt mean that the boundaries between them will always be somewhat blurred, so continuing to harness and reconnect with her creativity may well be the key to enabling her to find some middle ground – and therein some measure of balance.
If you’re interested in being featured in the Work-Life Balance Profiles series – or would like to nominate someone you know to share their story – please get in touch.
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